Law is the primary social tool used to influence behaviors and environments — for “generalizing or scaling up practices judged collectively beneficial, forestalling negative behavior, and setting powers, duties, and limitations on public and private entities.” As researchers, policymakers, advocates and others seek to better understand how and why legal interventions make a difference to the public’s health, public health legal education stands as a crucial component in the capacity building necessary for rigorous and rapid evaluation of these legal interventions that “treat” millions of people.
That evaluation — called public health law research, or legal epidemiology research — supports evidence-based policy- and decision-making that can advance health, improve well-being, and increase equity not only in the United States, but around the world.
For nearly 12 years, the Center for Public Health Law Research at the Beasley School of Law has been dedicated to that capacity building through our work developing research methods for legal epidemiology, like policy surveillance (which is the systematic, scientific tracking of laws of public health significance); funding research projects with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; creating high quality legal data; and supporting the next generation of public health lawyers, researchers, advocates and others through public health legal education and training.
Our educational efforts begin right here at the Beasley School of Law, where we offer a graduate certificate in Public Health Law Research in collaboration with the College of Public Health. The interprofessional graduate certificate is the only one of its kind in the nation, and provides foundational training in public health law and related research methods. The certificate integrates theory and methods from across disciplines — aptly reflecting the transdisciplinary nature of the growing field of legal epidemiology, where legal and scientific approaches meld into one, to break down enduring barriers that prevent the full recognition and understanding of the role of law in public health.
We are happy to report that our efforts have also been fruitful beyond Temple’s campus. The use of policy surveillance is spreading, which means more legal data and awareness of the law, more evidence, and a greater impetus for the effective use of law for health. Over the past five years, the Center has hosted a regular series of online webinars on the policy surveillance process that have reached about 2,000 individuals. We have hosted five iterations of our Policy Surveillance Institute, a two-day intensive seminar on the policy surveillance process and public health law generally, attended by a diverse group of 250 participants. Attendees of both our webinar series and our Policy Surveillance Institute have gone on to produce scientific legal datasets and public health law research projects, many of which have been published on our flagship website LawAtlas.org. We have also reached scores of other interested researchers through traditional classroom education, one-on-one consultation, conference presentations, and our Learning Library, which has been visited more than 3,000 times since its launch in 2017.
One of our primary efforts is to educate public health practitioners, many of whom do not have legal education in their background, to gain an understanding of relevant public health laws affecting their jurisdictions and how to access information about the laws of their peer jurisdictions. Between 2015 and 2020, in coordination with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Center conducted the State, Tribal, Local and Territorial Legal Epidemiology Project to develop workforce capacity in public health agencies across the country. The project worked to encourage the agencies to institutionalize public health law practices as tools in their own processes, and to develop professional “ownership” of legal functions among the nonlawyers in their agencies to carry out the essential public health law services such as policy development, implementation, and evaluation. Through this project, the Center trained and guided staff from 14 health departments as they created their own policy surveillance projects, including Kansas City, MO’s study of local just cause eviction and retaliation laws, Cook County, IL’s look at local inclusionary zoning laws, Louisville, KY’s project on local incentives to improve access to healthy foods, and Washington State’s survey of state certificate of need laws.
We have also taken these efforts internationally, including a project conducted in coordination with the World Health Organization and the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health in 2019 to educate and lead a team of in-country lawyers and WHO subject matter experts in a project studying the implementation of International Health Regulations. Overall, the project was a tremendous success and included teams from Switzerland, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Serbia working in five different languages studying four distinct legal structures. We helped the WHO develop an online development tool that alerts lawmakers across the world about the necessary content for creating the best public health laws in a variety of domains.
From the outset, the Center has been dedicated to developing and teaching legal epidemiology research methods. Our vast array of datasets and literature across many legal areas are proof positive of our belief in the utility and importance of these methods and services, but our capability to share and demonstrate them is what links us to continued and sustainable progress in the field. We look forward to continuing to share this work and our processes as a means to better public health outcomes for all.